Thursday, June 30, 2011

Gearing up for Brain of Bath

It’s quiz time again. And more specifically, the high-powered mental challenge that is Brain of Bath 2011.

Tonight the great and good of the city (plus a team from The Bath Chronicle) assemble in – yes, you guessed it – the Assembly Rooms to stretch their collective brains, show off their general knowledge and raise funds for homelessness charity Julian House.

Without blowing our own trumpet too much, the Chronicle team has done pretty well at Brain of Bath over the years. Indeed, the glittering cut-glass trophy has taken pride of place in the newsroom since last summer, and we won’t be giving it up without a fight.

At the start of every Brain of Bath the organiser, Cecil Weir of Julian House, gives out a dire warning: in the event of any dispute about the answers, he is always right.

And that’s the way it should be. Quizzes are about facts, not opinions. There can be no argument, for example, about who invented lemon curd. But you can bicker till the cows come home about why they ever bothered.

Of course, not everything in Brain of Bath depends entirely on general knowledge. A regular favourite is the so-called Smells Round.

How can things smell round, you may well ask. Well, you may ask, but no one will laugh.

The hard-working assistants dash round the tables and dish out 10 little plastic pots per team. In their past life they were 35mm film containers. The pots, not the assistants. Pay attention at the back.

In each pot is a cotton pad doused in smell, and when the teams open them a veritable symphony of aromas wafts skywards.

Gorgonzola mingles with Brut 33, aniseed dukes it out with Dettol. For a brief five minutes the Assembly Rooms smell like an explosion in an essential oils factory, and then calm is restored.

It’s only after the answers are read out that you realise that you’d never make it as a wine-taster. What you thought was banana is actually celery, and what you were convinced was Marmite turns out to be Chanel Number 5.

To make things even more difficult, there’s the Sport Round.

Now you might think that a newspaper would have an unfair advantage here, what with a crack team of sports writers at our beck and call.

But the sports guys are generally washing their hair on Brain of Bath night, and it’s up to the rest of us news/features/general dogsbody types to prove the old saying: You either know that you know nothing about sport, or you think you know something about sport, but you don’t.

Throw in a bit of internecine rivalry – solicitors vs accountants, Bath Chronicle vs regular pub quiz haunt the St James Wine Vaults – and you’ve got a recipe for a great night out. May the best team win – if they haven’t already.

Friday, June 24, 2011

How I stopped worrying and learned to love insecticide

Never give a sucker an even break.

It seems a long time since February, and much water has passed under the bridge since then.

But readers of a horticultural disposition may well recall that it was during that gloomiest of months that the mighty LED grow lights were installed at Dixon Manor in the early days of our attempt to grow the World’s Strongest Chilli (official), the Naga Jolokia.

The powerful blue and red lights which we suspended above the seedlings back in the winter have since perplexed the neighbours, dazzled the cat and caused the disruption of several flights into Bristol Airport.

We even had some unkempt-looking bloke with a rucksack and tent knocking on the door last Monday asking if he’d reached Glastonbury. But that turned out to be Mister Holliday, who was never known for his sense of direction.

The lights do seem to have helped things grow.

Although oddly enough the Naga Jolokias haven’t really got going yet (they miss their homes in the Himalayas), while  the cheap-as-chips chilli seeds that Mrs D brought home from Morrisons have gone completely bonkers and have already produced a few new pods.

What they’ve also produced, though, is aphids. Hundreds and hundreds of them.

It’s very easy not to like aphids. They’re brown, or green, or white, and they have a taste for young leaves. They creep out of their hidey-holes some time in April, attach themselves to your tender seedlings and breed like...

Well, like aphids.

It’s all very well living and letting live, but when a plague of uninvited sap-sucking midget pests sets up shop in your conservatory and proceeds to cover the leaves of your best specimens in sticky deposits, black mould and shed skin cases, then you’ve got a perfect right to feel aggrieved.

Now here’s the problem. As far as Mrs D is concerned, we are pretty much officially organic.

Slugs and snails may rampage unchecked through flower and fruit; pea moths may flutter at will through the legume beds; carrot flies may train their uncannily accurate homing beacons on what was going to be one third of next Sunday’s meat and two veg.

But if a hungry invertebrate comes sniffing round our crops, then all we’re really supposed to do is stop them getting in, or leave them to be devoured by their natural enemies, or squash them.

Well, they’ve already got into the conservatory, so it’s a bit late to stop them. And the cat has declared itself neutral as far as being a natural enemy of aphids is concerned. So squashing it is.

But when you’ve squashed 3,472 of the little blighters and you still don’t seem to be anywhere near halfway through, something’s got to give.

Thus it was that your once-organic blogger snuck out to the garden centre, bought some of the least noxious looking insecticide, brought it home and gave the aphids a damn good squirting. So long, suckers.

But it's our secret, ok? So whatever you do, don’t go telling Mrs D.

Friday, June 17, 2011

We aren't the Wood Preservation Society

Now this may come as something of a surprise, but a lot of the things you see in adverts on the telly aren’t actually true.

We take as our text all those cheery people singing about the “Wood Preservation Society”.

They prance out into their gardens brandishing sprayers, paint-brushes and cheesy grins, do a bit of a Busby Berkeley number and Bob’s your uncle: their fences, sheds, pergolas, arbours and decking are as good as new.

Real life isn’t like that.

Take the fence between us and the next-door neighbour. It was put up ages ago by the last but one occupant of what we now fondly refer to as Dixon Manor.

And in the intervening years it has become a trifle wonky. So much so, in fact, that before we could even start to think about painting it we had to gird our loins in preparation for the fencing equivalent of some serious root canal work.

(Changing the subject for a moment, what makes people want to become dentists? OK, the money’s not bad, but all that grubbing around with the orthodontic equivalents of a cold chisel, a lump hammer and a wrecking bar can’t do much for your sense of truth and beauty. Answers on a postcard...)

Anyway, with a new fencepost drilled, fixed, fettled and concreted – who’d have thought a humble columnist had so many non-related skills? – it was time to break out the fancy new sprayer.

Or rather it wasn’t. Because it was windy. And the next day was windy. And the day after that was windier still. And then it rained.

Have you noticed that the sun always shines on the Wood Preservation Society? Well, it doesn’t on our fence.

And in a prominent place on the War-and-Peace-length instructions for the aforementioned Fancy New Sprayer, it said, in large bold letters: “Do not spray in windy conditions or when rain is expected within the next five hours.”

If you can spot any substantive difference between the above and “Do not spray, ever”, then please jot it down on the same postcard.

The time spent waiting for a break in the weather was put to good use reading the rest of the instructions.

Which included among other gems the sort of diagram that Nasa might use if it ever forgot how to build space shuttles and then wanted to put together a new one.

Eventually, though, the wind died down to Force One on the Beaufort Scale, charmingly described as “Light air: branches stay attached to trees, pedestrians walk vertically rather than at 45° to the horizontal”.

Out came the sprayer and the green paint. But what they don’t tell you in the adverts is that if you’ve got a slightly tatty old fence panel that’s previously been painted brown, half of the green gets absorbed and you end up with camouflage.

That and miniature green speckles all over your glasses.

We’ll do the rest in brown, and hope for the best. But that Wood Preservation Society has got an awful lot to answer for.

Thursday, June 02, 2011

Bath's new cycle racks

They came in the night, silently and without warning. Dark grey, purposeful, skeletal shapes, they embedded themselves at strategic junctions, pierced the streets with their alien roots, locked themselves down firmly, and waited.

Cycle corral, Barton Street, Bath
Few saw their coming. Even fewer saw them change, from their original, other-worldly, insectoid forms into a disguise so eerily accurate that in the cold light of dawn they very nearly blended in with the scenery.

Nearly, but not quite. A few observant souls realised as they trod Bath’s early morning streets that something had changed. Forever.

Enough of this nonsense. The arrival of Bath’s new bike racks is a serious matter, not to be trivialised into a sub-Stephen-King-style tale of tension, horror and catharsis.

Up to a couple of weeks ago, our bike racks, or cycle parking spaces, or whatever the appropriate name is, were rather ordinary-looking affairs. The majority resembled nothing more nor less than an unfolded staple with its pointy ends stuck into the pavement.

(Although in the course of the in-depth preparation for this piece – which involved standing up and looking out of the back window of Bath Chronicle Towers – one researcher did discover some odd spring-shaped stands at the bottom end of Kingsmead Square. But two of them are so badly bent that they could only be used by one of those racing bikes that goes round a banked circuit at 45°. Can a square have an end? We digress.)

The new bike racks, which are apparently known as "cycle corrals", are a much classier proposition. They’re painted the shade of grey you normally find on your very rich friends’ new kitchen units, and what’s really clever about them is that they’re shaped like cars.

Cycle corral, Queen Square, Bath
For a number of reasons, this is a very good idea.

First off, it continues Bath’s long tradition of thought-provoking street art.

Three years ago it was pigs, last year it was lions. This time it’s battleship-grey automobiles.

Second off, real cars will be less likely to drive “accidentally” into the new bike racks. Cars never deliberately attack their own kind (it’s always the other car’s fault), and they aren’t intelligent enough to tell the difference between the real thing and a clever simulacrum. Thus the new stands are less susceptible to attack. Look at the picture: the blue BMW is keeping a respectful distance. QED.

Third, and most importantly, it will sow doubt in the minds of car drivers. “Here’s this bike rack,” they’ll think. “It takes up the same space as my car, but they’ve managed to fit 12 bikes into it. If we all got out of our cars and onto our bikes, wouldn’t life be grand!”

Do drivers really think like that? Well, hope springs eternal...

The new cycle corrals have been spotted in Milsom Street, Queen Square, Westgate Buildings and Barton Street.

There are doubtless others breeding even as you read this, but our researcher was getting tired and had to have a sit-down.

They encourage cycling, they don’t bung up the pavements, they don’t spoil the view, and what’s more they annoy inveterate car drivers.

Bring 'em on - the more, the merrier.